Never can one imagine there having been a campaign that produced so much magical irony.
A decorated veteran who volunteered for combat and who still carries the wounds of his bravery must defend his honor and patriotism against a rich frat boy who, when his own time came, pulled strings to stay safe in the bosom of the Texas Air National Guard.
A president who piles up the largest budget and trade deficits in the nation's history runs as a fiscal conservative, and it is his opponent, who opposed the policies that caused them, who gets credit for being reckless.
A president with the second worst economic numbers in 100 years convinces voters that the good times will be over if he isn't re-elected. And the legions who claim to be guided by what Jesus would do follow a politician who scorned the poor, added to the burdens of the heavily laden and turned the government into a trough for the rich, the privileged and the private interests.
John Kerry must bear some blame for letting this happen to him. But here is the most bewildering paradox of all. He is being blamed for not having a ready and convincing solution to the debacle in Iraq or the other horrifying problems that George W. Bush bequeathed the country in three and a half years. The first Republican playbook was to cast the Democratic nominee, whoever it would be, as wishy-washy, the one quality that in such parlous times might unnerve voters even more than a rash and bumbling president. Now, it is that the nation must stick with the man who made all the blunders because Kerry doesn't have a brilliant plan for reversing them. The commentators, parroting the Republican talking points, demand every night to know what Kerry's plan is for getting out of Iraq.
It is true that neither Kerry nor anyone else has a plausible course change for Iraq, where U.S. planes, tanks and rockets are turning the ancient cityscapes into rubble and the most westernized people in the Muslim world into rabble. Almost everyone, including the CIA and leading Republican senators, acknowledges now that Iraq is a disaster almost beyond hope. President Bush is counting on its being enough for people to know that we have overthrown one of the world's many petty dictators. Not enough of them will ask by election day whether it is worth the price that they are paying - by year's end nearly 10,000 dead and wounded U.S. soldiers and civilians and the loss of more than $200 billion in treasure, the surviving wounded and the families of the dead left to suffer to the end of their days. And it is only the beginning.
Kerry says he will talk former U.S. allies and Middle Eastern countries into helping. He will find more receptive ears than will George Bush, who is held in contempt in most of the world's capitals, but what chance is there really that any nation now will send a solitary soul to Iraq? Kerry will train more Iraqi soldiers and actually use the money that Bush asked for to rebuild the infrastructure that we have obliterated. But anarchy makes both unrealistic. There is hardly a major city outside Baghdad and Basra where one or another insurgent group does not have sway.
It should be enough for Senator Kerry to say that he will be a far wiser leader than Bush, that he will not squander the lives and futures of men and women or endanger the nation's security on a whim, that he will not heedlessly cast aside the advice of diplomats and wise soldiers, as Bush has done at every turn. That is Kerry's message but he seems unable to articulate it in a credible way.
Kerry got into the predicament by a weak response to the charge that he waffled on Iraq by voting for the war in 2002 and against spending $87 billion in 2003 to support the troops. The truth would have demolished Bush.
Kerry voted to give the president the authority to go to war with international support if Saddam Hussein refused to permit arms inspectors, conditions that Bush ignored. And it was Bush who threatened a veto if the troops were supported in the right way. Kerry voted to spend $87 billion for the war by paying for it, like every other previous wartime president, in this case by rolling back the tax cuts for the rich. Bush insisted that the $87 billion and all the war funding since then be put on the credit card by taking the money from Social Security trust funds and by borrowing from China and Japan.
If you believe that is wise and patriotic, Kerry should have said, then George Bush is your man.